The Gecom Chairman selection imbroglio has become the new talking point in the local media and among politically inclined Guyanese at home and abroad, and for good reason: the future of the country is at stake, depending on which party or party leader different media houses and Guyanese favour.
This growing consternation actually started after the PPP lost the 2015 elections and the PPP began a campaign of alleging elections rigging and to have Dr. Steve Surujbally removed as Gecom Chairman. It was obvious the PPP believed it was supposed to be in power, as if this was a birthright. After Dr. Surujbally stepped down, the President dropped the ball by failing to clearly lay out in person to the Opposition Leader what qualities or qualifications he preferred in the replacement candidate; after all, the constitution gives the President the last say on any candidate proposed by the Opposition Leader.
It took the President a couple of attempts before he finally narrowed his preference for a candidate with judge-like qualities or experience, but the Opposition Leader clearly was not inclined to co-operate, as his three lists showed more candidates who fell into the ‘fit and proper’ category as opposed to the judge-like category.
One civic-minded Guyanese approach-ed the court to obtain clarification on whether the constitutional clause governing the selection process limited the choice to those of judge-like qualities, and that move literally opened the door to what has since played out. Acting Chief Justice Roxane George-Wiltshire ruled that the clause does not limit candidates to those with judge-like qualities, but includes anyone else deemed ‘fit and proper’.
She then rendered some opinions as part of her ruling: 1) The President, acting in his own deliberate judgment, must determine whether a person is ‘fit and proper’, 2) The President is not obligated to select a person from the six names on a list, of which he has determined positively that the persons thereon are unacceptable as fit and proper persons for appointment, 3) The President did not have to wait for the submission of a new list. He, according to the Constitution, could have gone ahead and appointed a Chairman, having rejected the first list.
Editor, I am well aware of the valued role of the Fourth Estate (the media) in defending and developing our democracy, but it borders on gross negligence, perhaps deliberate indifference, for any media house perceived to be engaged in a campaign to defend and develop democracy without providing their audience with all the facts so the target audience can make informed decisions or draw informed conclusions.
Based on the Acting Chief Justice’s opinion, therefore, the President is on safe legal ground with his unilateral choice of retired Chief Justice James Patterson to assume the post of Gecom Chairman. Unfortunately, he is not on solid political ground, because the selection of the Gecom Chairman should incorporate a semblance of political inclusivity, which was why the Opposition Leader was tasked with producing a list. And, as I adverted to above, the Opposition Leader apparently did not want to give the President a list of judge-like persons, knowing full well the constitution gives the President the last say on whether a list is acceptable. The process quickly devolved into an ‘I dare you’ standoff.
Now that the President has made his unilateral choice, which I and many wish he didn’t have to, the fallout is receiving fuel and fanning from various quarters to gin up support, either legally or politically, and the potential for the race card to be played has already surfaced. Some critics of the appointment have an issue with Justice Patterson’s age, but others have not so overtly pronounced on Patterson’s race and the possible link to President Granger and his Black-dominated coalition government.
The racial optics became sharper as two prominent Indo-Guyanese – Joseph Singh and Christopher Ram – stepped down from inconsequential positions they held in the coalition government, and now we have a news story of the Opposition Leader looking to mount an overseas campaign to stop the coalition from rigging the next elections. It may seem, to some, like a quantum leap for the Opposition Leader to go from criticizing the unilateral appointment as unconstitutional and illegal to now being a prelude to elections rigging.
For the record, in 2001, the PPP obtained 209,754 votes. In 2006, it received 182,156 votes. In 2011, it garnered 166,340 votes, losing its parliamentary majority but showing a trending decline in voter support after decades of a built-in majority support among Indian voters. In 2015, the PPP mounted a spirited effort to retain power, including Bharrat Jagdeo’s appeal to the racial insecurity of Indians in 2015 with talk of the army kicking down doors of PPP supporters if the coalition won. The PPP lost 201,457 to the coalition’s 206,817 votes, but while Jagdeo took a lot of heat for that bit of fearmongering, it almost paid off.
Today, the Opposition Leader once again seems determined to play the insecurities and fears game to gain power by speculating that the appointment of Justice Patterson is, somehow, a prelude to elections rigging. Every Guyanese and every responsible media house owe it to themselves and each other to never promote racial insecurity or further politically divide the nation based on fear or divisive speculation. Likewise, every Guyanese must guard against election rigging, regardless of party affiliation.